Sunday, June 05, 2005

Hope in the Dark:
untold histories, wild possibilities

Hope in the Dark wants us to remember this.

I wanted so much to love the book of this title. Who doesn't need a dose of hope? And Rebecca Solnit does provide a vision of hope -- and, additionally, raises difficult questions which I cannot answer quite as she has.

Certainly she got me started nodding my head vigorously in agreement. For example with this:

The only story many radicals [garden variety liberals too?] know how to tell is the one that is the underside of the dominant culture's story…They conceive of the truth as pure bad news, appoint themselves the deliverers of it, and keep telling it over and over. Eventually they come to look for the downside in any emerging story, even in apparent victories -- and in each other: something about the task seems to give some of them the souls of metermaids and dogcatchers.

Yup, been there, done that. And, like Solnit, I have learned one of the great correctives for getting stuck there: simply looking around at the changes that have happened in my lifetime, unfinished and incomplete as they are. After all, in 1960 which was roughly when I first figured out I was a lesbian, who ever thought I'd be living in a society where the mainstream was arguing about whether I could get married and meanwhile my church helped my partner and me celebrate our 25th anniversary? In the same year, who could have envisioned a Black US middle class enjoying most of same privileges as whites, even if still not a fair share of the underlying wealth? Or that Soviet domination of Eastern Europe would simply be gone? Or that all of Africa would have sloughed off formal colonial domination, including seeing apartheid peacefully overthrown? We indeed inhabit an unjust and violent world, but one full of potential new freedoms as well as of growing dangers.

Solnit's premise is that cultural change precedes political and social change, a notion for which she provides examples from sources as diverse as Thomas Jefferson, the Zapatistas, and indigenous peoples' campaign around the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival on their American turf. She is sure every effort to envision justice and compassion contributes to shaping our futures. As she says "this book is an argument that culture generates politics and that every act counts."

To that assertion I can say "Amen" -- and that there's more to think about. And it is in the "more" that I have reservations about what Solnit is telling us. Sometimes political changes shape future cultural changes, rather than the other way around; just think of the Voting Rights Act, for example. Nobody was thinking of Latinos when this was passed, but it has been important in bringing them into play in southwestern states. I keep going back to the idea that changes are dialectical: there is no rule about whether political arrangements or cultural ones come first -- they happen in dynamic interplay.

Cogently, Solnit charges that "Americans are good at responding to a crisis and then going home to let another crisis brew. . ." She contends this doesn't work in political life:

Going home seems to be a way to abandon victories when they're still delicate, still in need of protection and encouragement. …It's always too soon to go home. Most of the great victories continue to unfold, unfinished in the sense that they are not yet fully realized, but also in the sense that they continue to spread influence. A phenomenon like the civil rights movement creates a vocabulary and toolbox for social change used around the globe, so its effect far outstrips its goals and specific achievements -- and failures.

Okay -- but, darn it, most people don't engage in political struggle to get off on it. (Solnit is very good at describing how close to orgasmic political victories can occasionally feel to dedicated activists.) Most people will engage with social struggles only reluctantly and out of necessity -- and they are not inferior people for their reticence. Some, women with children and all people so poor they barely stay alive, are simply too busy! For many others, a life bounded by fair and compassionate interactions with friends, family, immediate neighbors and small scale institutions can be a life well lived; we cannot make it the measure of people whether they engage in a wider arena.

This poses a problem for democracy and for a world in which actions in one part of the globe can impact people a world away. But that is the activist's problem: how to engage people with their social environments, yes -- but also, how, without dropping an expectation of responsibility, to spare people the burden of carrying the whole world, all the time, in addition to their own lives. Solnit is very helpful in conceptualizing the former task. She is not so good at thinking through the later. And we must, otherwise the rich and the wasteful, and their hired help who always have time, energy and the incentive to keep struggling, will determine the future for all of us.


ben said...

Nice entry! Very thought provoking. I've had, running on repeat, in my head for a while that society is like a virus, that politics are nothing more than an expression of that virus's stage of development. To get anything done you design an idea that will consume and spread. blah, blah, blah... whatever - nice post.

Saw you post on AmSam

Bill said...

I agree with Ben. Nice post.

I'll have to get a hold of Solnit's book, which others have recommended to me as well.

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